Recently I was a guest on a Toronto-area talkshow, Goldhawk Live. They invited Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong to talk about his proposal to allow select city parks to have “off leash” hours for dogs early in the morning and later at night. I was brought on as a dog behaviour expert for the show.
One of the points I made was that the majority of dog owners are good owners who respect leash laws, pick up after their dogs, and invest in training and do their best to keep their dog from infringing upon the rights of others. The minority spoil it for good dog owners, and make us all look bad.
Certainly, while good dog owners can socially shame others to do things like pick up their dog’s poop, unfortunately, that only goes so far. We need more enforcement of bylaws so that those bad apples respect leash laws, pick up after their dogs, and start behaving responsibly.
This is what I saw today on King Street West in the middle of the day. A dog tethered to a bicycle, riding in traffic. It is a horrible idea and a copycat behaviour I am seeing more of.
What bad behaviours drive YOU crazy? Comment below and let’s discuss.
*December 6 update* – Just to close the issue on this, since getting clarification that the proposal is for “select” city parks to be given “courtesy hours” early in the AM and later in the PM, it is safe to say that responsible dog owners would be strongly in favour of this. This allows dog owners more options for legal off-use areas, and allows others to wish to avoid off-leash dogs a greater ability to avoid them, since where and when they are off-leash would be understood. Great for dogs in need of space.
Toronto city councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong made the news by suggesting that all city parks be made available for off-leash use by dog owners from 9pm-9am.
At first glance, this may seem like a good idea, and you’d think that any dog loving person would be in support of this. However, upon closer evaluation, this is a horrible idea both for everyone.
Four Reasons Why This Is A Very Bad Idea:
Many dogs chase and bite fast moving objects. In particular, cyclists, runners, and children do not mesh well with dogs. Many dogs chase fast moving objects and can frighten a cyclist, causing them to fall, or bite a runner. Dogs do not belong off leash anywhere near cycling or running trails.
Small children are susceptible to being knocked over and injured by dogs. It is for this reason children do not belong in dog parks. Similarly, dogs do not belong off leash near where small children play.
When a dog is off-leash, the likelihood of even diligent owners picking up every poop is reduced. Couple in darkness, and, the odds of poop being left in city parks where users sit, run through, and roll on increases. Dog feces can carry zoonotic disease like various types of worms, giardia, and other parasites and bacteria. This is a health risk to everyone, but especially the young, elderly, and those with compromised immune systems.
Not all dogs want to play with other dogs off leash. Many owners that have dogs that are elderly, injured, have disabilities, are fearful, or even aggressive need spaces to walk their dogs, on leash, and be free from interactions from other dogs. A boisterous, friendly dog, that runs up to any of these dog is a disaster waiting to happen. If any park is fair game for off-leash dogs, these dogs will have nowhere to go.
Minnan-Wong is correct in that there are too few dedicated off-leash parks in the city. As a result, in every community in Toronto, there are school fields and parkettes everywhere that are already being used illegally by dog owners as unofficial off-leash parks anyways. But, in these cases, they are usually free of children, joggers, cyclists, and other users of the park that would naturally come into conflict with off-leash dog owners.
In other places, such as the greenspace along the Martin Goodman trail, due to the high volume of cyclists and joggers, the vast majority of dog owners keep their dogs on leash. It’s a smart move anyways, since no one want to see their dog get run over by a cyclist, or have their dog chase down and bite a cyclist.
However, by making it officially legal to allow any dog off leash at any city park during that time period, there will be an significant increase in the number of runner/cyclist/child dog incidents. Many of these incidents will involve biting.
It’s Not Quite Like That In New York
He claims that this works in cities like New York. But, as far as I know, only Central Park has off-leash dog hours. This leaves many other places for joggers, cyclists, and dogs who’d rather not play with others to enjoy, free from having to deal with off-leash dogs. A blanket rule that allows any dog to be off-leash at any city park is quite dangerous.
What I would propose:
The city should just greatly expand the number of approved off-leash areas to meet need. Perhaps officially designate a large # of city parks as off-leash areas during designated times. But, each park should be considered carefully, taking into consideration the other types of use it currently serves. This already happens unofficially.
For example, Dufferin Grove, by College and Dufferin, is not an official off-leash dog park, but, the soccer field is commonly used by local residents as an off-leash park during the day. It is not a park commonly used by cyclists or joggers, and the playground area where children play is far away and physically separated by fencing. Dufferin Grove is very easily a park that should be approved to be an official off-leash dog park, provided soccer games are not in session.
There already is a process for applying for off-leash areas. Why not just make it work faster, and approve more of them?
If you’ve hired one of us from When Hounds Fly to discuss behaviour problems (fear, anxiety, reactivity, aggression), you’ll remember that before we even talk about the behaviour problems, we spend time talking about the overall lifestyle of the dog.
The House of Good Health
Sabine Contreras of Better Dog Care (her business is in dog nutrition counselling) has a framework on her web site called “The House of Good Health”:
When the foundation and pillars falter, behaviour falters.
Just in the last two weeks alone, here are three anecdotal stories that support this common belief:
My own Beagle, Duke, we discovered, was suffering from some sort of skin problem. We noticed this due to flaking and itchiness. At the same time, his reactivity towards dogs increased. Once diagnosed and addressed, the skin flaking and itchiness subsided, and his reactivity to dogs decreased again to very low levels.
Another client’s dog, who withdrew from group classes due to dog aggression, worked with us via private lessons. The dog had ongoing gastrointestinal issues. We referred to Christine Ford of Oh My Dog and she prescribed a new home prepared diet. Within a short period of time of starting to just transition to the new diet, we received this email:
[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]Beau is doing much better, thanks for asking. We increased his new food to 15% a few days ago, so we are going to keep him on that amount for a few more days. His poops are still pretty good – he is pooping more often and each poop is pretty small, so we are making sure to take him out more often.
There was one question I wanted to run by you – has it been your experience that when dogs are eating a poor diet, that this can impact their behaviour? This may sound crazy, but we have noticed that with the supplements and the small portion of new food, Beau’s dog aggression has decreased a bit. We weren’t sure if this was due to all the training we have been doing, but we noticed the biggest difference when we started changing his diet.[/quote]
Another past student emailed saying that their dog had suddenly started growling and fighting with other dogs in his walking group. So much so, that the walkers had to crate and isolate this dog for safety. They were interested in training, but instead, I directed them to their vet. I didn’t hear back from them for a while and upon checking in, this is what they had to say:
[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]
As you suggested we took him to the vet when he started acting grumpy to other dogs. The vet thought he might be having lower back pain. Finn was on painkillers for a few days and that seemed to do the trick. So all’s well that ends well.
Get Started Now
Is all undesired behaviour related to the foundations and pillars as Sabine calls them? No, of course not. However, before embarking on a journey of training and behaviour modification, it is irresponsible not to exhaust every avenue and leave no stone unturned on the foundations of diet, exercise, physical health, and environmental enrichment.
With health related issues, first consult your veterinarian. Tell them if your dog is having behaviour problems. They should be helpful and not hinder your attempts just to ensure your dog is in perfect health. Some veterinarians have out of date information regarding behaviour and will be resistant. If they are, that is a red flag, since any good behaviour modification program starts with an evaluation of health.
Diet can make a huge difference, so consider hiring someone like Sabine or Christine to help you formulate a home prepared diet. This is especially true if you have a dog with allergies or gastrointestinal issues.
Finally, hire a dog trainer/behaviour consultant who understands how to use humane, force-free methods to help with fear, anxiety, and aggression to get help with the training component of helping your dog out.
Separation anxiety is a condition in dogs where emotionally and physiologically, the dog becomes panic stricken when he’s apart from his owner or people in general. Typically it manifests itself when a dog is left home alone.
Behaviors that occur when a dog is suffering from separation anxiety:
Urination (a normally housebroken dog will soil within minutes of being left alone)
Self-mutilation (licking his/her own paws excessively till the fur is gone and the skin is raw)
Destroying objects (pillows, shoes, door trim, trying to eat the door)
Barking or howling
Some physiological signs include:
Why does it develop?
There are many reasons why a dog may develop separation anxiety. It has been observed that puppies that are transported by air cargo during puppyhood (specifically, around 8-11 weeks) have a higher likelihood of developing separation anxiety. It also develops when a dog never has the opportunity to practice being alone, especially when growing up as a puppy (for example, an owner who takes time off from work and is with the puppy 24/7 for weeks at a time). Major lifestyle changes such as a work-from-home person suddenly having to go to an office 9-5, or moving to a new home can also cause separation anxiety to appear later in life.
Regardless of the reason, it is a major reason why dogs end up in shelter (Dogs can bark and howl loudly – if they have separation anxiety, the owners get eviction notices).
Don’t confuse Separation Anxiety for Boredom
A dog that chews your shoes when you’re gone may just be bored and wanted to chew your shoe. Similarly, a dog that soils in the house when left alone may just not be housebroken – or you left them at home for longer than their bladder could handle. Look for sweaty paw prints, drool puddles, glazed eyes, etc. as signs that it is separation anxiety and not a general training issue. Recording your dog with a camera when you’re gone is a good way to tell.
Managing Separation Anxiety
Solving separation anxiety, after its developed, may take months or years. So you’ll need management strategies while you implement treatment strategies. Here are a few:
Confine the dog to a small room, leaving only chew toys and dog items in the room (kongs stuffed with food, hard, safe chew toys, etc.) This way he can’t eat your shoes or destuff a pillow. He may ignore the kongs when you’re gone (too panicked to touch them) but that will change over time.
Crate train your dog and create him when left alone – leave toys/chews inside. Again, this is about minimizing damage to the house and the dog when you’re gone.
Leave the dog with a friend when you’re gone.
Leave the dog at dog daycare if you need to be away for long durations.
Have a dogwalker come mid-day to give him a break – have the dogwalker return the dog to the crate or room and resupply with new kongs.
Use “natural” anti-anxiety products like Rescue Remedy in his water
Try a product like a Thundershirt
Consider using a DAP Diffuser in the small room (pheromones for calming anxious dogs)
Consider prescription anxiety drugs from your vet as a short term solution (to lower the anxiety to a level that treatment strategies become effective) – discuss this with your vet. In the case of severe separation anxiety, this may be the only way to start making inroads in addressing the problem.
Treating Separation Anxiety
Exercise the dog before departure (30-40 minutes, offleash, running – playing fetch, etc.) and then give them some time to rest and recover.
Leave home from different doors, wear different coats and shoes, don’t always get your wallet and keys in the same order – mix it up – sometimes put your coat on and go sit in the living room. You’re trying to randomize the predictors of departure so that anxiety doesn’t build up as you get ready to leave.
Feed your dog when you leave (i.e. give breakfast in a food dispensing toy such as a Kong Wobbler when you leave for work, and dinner when you go out for the night)
Leave stuffed kongs and other food toys in the crate or room your dog is left in.
Most importantly – practice PLANNED DEPARTURES
What is a Planned Departure?
A planned departure is leaving your home for a set amount of time strictly for the purposes of desensitizing your dog to being left alone. If you pack up and leave, you may find your dog is silent for 1 minute at first, then the barking or urination starts at 1:01. If that’s his threshold, you leave for 55 seconds, and then return. Repeat at 56 seconds, then 57, and slowly move your way up. Doing as many as you can sporadically through the day is the best way to do this.
Over days and weeks you’ll move from increments of seconds to minutes – over time your dog will be able to tolerate being alone and loose for longer and longer periods. Once you get up to about the 10 minute mark, it’s easy to integrate this practice to your daily life – 10 minutes is enough time to go to the corner store to pick up milk, or walk to the video store to return a movie, go to the bank ATM, etc. The more reasons to leave and come back the better.
After weeks and months of work, you’ll break the 60 minute mark – at that point you’ll be able to leave your dog alone to go to the gym, eat at a neighbourhood restaurant, etc. By that time your dog should be OK to be alone for 3+ hours at a time.
Just make sure the dog is well exercised, has been opportunities to relieve himself, and you’ve left lots of chew toys and stuffed kongs (and hidden your prized pair of shoes or other at risk objects) to set your dog up for success.
Use webcams and audio recording software to help you collect useful data about whether your dog’s anxiety is getting better over time.
It is important as you work up on your departure durations to avoid leaving the dog home alone for longer than they can handle. This may mean heavy reliance on dog daycares, friends, family, and a severe impact on your social life in the short-term.
Here’s a video of a beagle that suffers from Separation Anxiety. Notice that the dog ignores food that is left behind – he is too stressed to eat – a sign that he suffers from moderate to severe separation anxiety (mildly anxious dogs will still eat when left alone).
What does teaching a Goldfish tricks have to do with dog training?
There are a lot of lessons to be learned about behaviour and operant conditioning by going through the work of teaching a common goldfish to swim through a small hoop or chase a plastic straw.
A dog has a considerably larger brain than a fish. Every dog, therefore, should have enough grey matter to amaze his or her owners.
You cannot use a choke, prong, or shock collar on a fish. You cannot hit a fish either. So the trainer needs to use his or her grey matter to figure out how to make this work.
Even a goldfish can be trained without lures. Notice when the food is presented to the fish? After the event marker (penlight), and after the behavior is performed. This fish KNOWS what the meaning of that little plastic hoop is. It KNOWS that it is following a plastic red straw. It is not mindlessly chasing food dangled by its nose (figuratively speaking, of course).
Your dog is considerably more forgiving on the timing of the click and food delivery that most fish are.
Why is this dog sitting in the corner, not begging for food?
Why is Petey sitting patiently with his butt pressed against the wall in the corner, while my father enjoys his lunch and tea? Because of the effective use of operant conditioning (positive reinforcement quadrant only).
Dogs are scavengers by nature. Dogs came into being as scavengers of the refuse of human civilization. So, can we blame them for instinctively begging for food at the dinner table? It is a natural, instinctive behaviour that is in their genetic makeup.
How would a traditional, force and correction based trainer handle a dog that mugs you while you’re eating? Probably through the use of aversives (stuff that the dog does not like) which can include verbal correction (ennnn! noooo!!), physical correction (stepping on the dogs toes, hitting the dog in the face, choking it with a collar), or remote correction (spray bottle in the face, citronella collar, shock collar).
Depending on how food motivated the dog is, or how scary the aversive is to the dog, the behaviour may end, and it may end quickly. But at what cost to your relationship with your dog? And what has the dog learned? That humans at dining tables are dangerous.
So, how does a positive reinforcement trainer teach a dog to not beg at the dining table?
Firstly, I never fed Petey when he was begging at the dinner table. You do it once, or twice, and you have created a very powerful history of reinforcement for rewarding the dog’s persistence at bothering you while eating. If you suddenly stop feeding from the dinner table, you’ll find the dog is even more motivated now to bug you. “Hey, hellloooo. I am here again. Why aren’t you feeding me like you normally do? HELLLLOOO. What’s wrong with you? You fed me here last time. HEY!!! YOU!!!”.
So, after a few days after rescuing him, he realized that jumping on me, or sitting next to me, while I was at the dining table produced no results. That approach, in Petey’s mind, was a broken down dead end.
If you want a nuisance behaviour to end, you must, as a humane trainer, think of a specific replacement behaviour that the dog can do that is acceptable. If you just want the dog to “stop doing this, and stop doing that”, you are asking for an off-switch on your dog – which can be accomplished by just shooting it with a gun (hence the title for Karen Pryor’s seminal book “Don’t Shoot the Dog!”). In this case, I wanted Petey to sit in the farthest corner of any room that we were eating in and patiently wait.
Operant conditioning states that behaviours that are rewarded will be repeated with increasing likelihood. So, I simply kept a small handful of kibble at the dining table whenever we eat. When I spotted Petey heading towards the farther corner of the room, I clicked and tossed a kibble to Petey. After a few meals he came to learn that sitting the corner was the most likely place for him to be rewarded.
Next, after the behaviour was established, I began shaping for duration. I just kept my watch at the table. I found that Petey would sit still for about 3 minutes before breaking his sit, so I began only clicking and treating if he held his position for 3 minutes and 30 seconds. Then 4 minutes, then 5. At this point we can pretty much have an entire meal start to finish with Petey’s butt glued to the wall.
This whole process only took a couple of weeks, and we have prevented a common “nuisance” behaviour from developing into a pattern with a strong reinforcement history. Instead, Petey loves shoving his butt into corners now!
How do you safely take a toy or bone away from a dog?
Does your dog exhibit aggressive behavior when he has a bone or toy? This issue is called Resource Guarding and if not addressed, can escalate into dangerous behaviors like biting.
From an evolutionary standpoint, dogs developed this behavior for obvious reasons. If a dog didn’t protect high value objects like meaty bones from theft, it would starve, pure and simple!
In practical terms, that toy, bone, or high valued object is rewarding to the dog, and having it taken away is an undesired outcome.
Forcing the dog physically to give up the toy will cause this problem to escalate, up to and including severe biting. So how can we address it safely?
As a positive reinforcement dog trainer, you must make the behavior of giving up the toy or bone a rewarding behavior. This is commonly done by trading objects with the dog with food – after all, the dog can’t guard a toy while simultaneously taking food from your hand.
Furthermore, if every time a toy or bone is given up and it’s put away, there’s no incentive for the dog to ever give up the toy, so its important to trade for food, and then return the toy to the dog. This creates a win-win situation where there’s no downside at all to giving up the highly valued object.
If you trade for food, and return the toy enough times, you’ll find your dog actually looks forward to releasing the toy as you approach. Its at this time we can put the behavior on cue with “Out” or “Drop It”.
If your dog has developed a serious case of resource guarding, where he starts growling and even biting as you approach, it is absolutely critical that you get professional help with this work as the risk of eliciting a dog bite is very high.
Whatever you do, don’t force the dog to release the object. This only teaches the dog that he was right to guard the item in the first place, and will increase the severity of the guarding and increase the severity of his aggression response. He’ll progress from guarding looks and body language to growling, and ultimately may resort to biting to protect the object.
Start early with your puppy to practice trading. If your adult dog is growling or biting, get help right away with a trainer or behaviourist that uses positive reinforcement to teach the dog that giving up toys is a fun and rewarding game.
How to train your dog not to run away from you at the park!
Second to learning how to walk nicely on leash, new dog owners’ second most requested call for help is a reliable recall while off leash. In Toronto, the unfortunate thing is most dog owners are inadvertently training to teach their dogs to run away from them!
What do knowledgeable dog owners do differently to train their dogs to stay nearby and come when called?
Shower your dog with attention and rewards when he’s near – Reward your dog for staying near you by rewarding with food (the morning dog park run is a great place to feed your dog breakfast) and fun games (tug of war, fetch, wrestling, hide and seek). Too many dog owners go to the dog park and stand in a circle talking to other dog owners, paying no attention to their dogs. They’re too focused on their coffee or chatting with owners and are about as interesting as rock to their dogs. Can you blame a dog for getting bored and wandering off?
Don’t let your dog loose focus on you for too long – By staying engaged with your dog at the park by playing with him, it’ll keep him from getting locked onto an interesting scent or chasing a squirrel – you’ll be able to interrupt and redirect with more fun and games. Dog owners that ignore their dogs often discover their dog is almost near the dog park exit are too late – any they end up rewarding the dog for leaving the park by calling their name (finally) and chasing them down – the attention earned for running out of the park is often the only form of reward that these poor dogs get! Their owners are rewarding them for leaving the park grounds by ignoring them when they’re near and paying attention when they leave.
Don’t let your dog off leash until he’s ready – A new puppy should be trained to return to handler every time he goes to the park. Keep the puppy’s leash dragging so in case he decides to bolt, you can catch him (and prevent the puppy from being rewarded for ignoring the owner). Off leash rights are something a dog should earn through consistent focus and recall exercises at home and in the yard. You might not take away the leash dragging until after a few months of daily off leash work.
No matter what your dog did right before, if he comes back to you, reward and praise lavishly. Punishment damages the trust a dog has and gives them a reason to second guess ever returning to you. Dogs that are trained punishment free never have to think twice about what’s waiting when he gets back to his handler.
Remember, reliable off-leash recall is a behavior that requires daily, consistent work, and its reliability changes dynamically based on the degree of distraction in the environment. Be patient and aim to be the most interesting thing at the dog park for your dog, every day.
Why has my dog, who used to love other dogs, started to get into fights at the dog park? Is he dominant?
Dominant? Usually not. Few dogs are born wanting to get into fights. Fighting behaviour is evolutionary suicide. So why has my dog started barking, lunging, and biting other dogs at the park?
There could be many reasons –
He’s not feeling well. Dogs are very stoic and hide discomfort very well. Make sure he’s been recently vetted and isn’t suffering from pain ordominant aggressive dog illness. If he is ill, dealing with the medical condition can often make the behavioral issue go away.
He’s been punished by or around dogs – One of the dangers of using punishment training (leash corrections) is that the punishment is often paired near or around other dogs (leash corrections for looking at dogs, “training” classes where leash corrections are done around other dogs in class). This can also happen at dog daycares/dog walking services that use punishment (spray bottles, physical corrections, bark collars, etc.). Pulling while on leash can also cause this (the dog sees a dog on the street, gets excited, pulls towards it, and experiences neck pain and frustration – in a dog’s mind, the other dog is causing the pain).
He’s been harassed by other dogs at the park – Look closely at the picture of the Beagle. Does he look happy? He’s doing everything he can to get away from the pushy Ridgeback. If the Ridgeback doesn’t stop, the owner of the Ridgeback doesn’t recall his dog, or the Beagle owner doesn’t leave, how long would it take before the Beagle decides to bark and lunge to send the Ridgeback away? How long would it take before the Beagle decides he hates the dog park, hates Ridgebacks, and hates all dogs? If the Beagle fights back, the Beagle owner collects his dog and leaves – reinforcing the very behavior of fighting back.
But I heard socializing your dog is very important! It absolutely is… BUT…
Socializing your dog at the park is a good idea, but it requires careful monitoring of his body language and selection of play partners. Our puppy socialization class teaches owners how to watch for these warning signs and ensures your puppy associates nothing but good things with other dogs. Overly rough play and bullying can just teach your dog to dislike other dogs. Young puppies also tend to be picked on and bullied by other dogs, which can teach them to be fearful of dogs – exactly the opposite of what you’re trying to accomplish.
If your dog has already started exhibiting aggressive behaviours towards dogs, don’t delay and ask us for help. The longer you allow your dog to practice these behaviours the stronger they become, and the harder it is to undo.